Sometimes the hardest thing for a writer (if my own experience is any indication!) is figuring out exactly where the story should organically begin.
Only once in my life did I ever submit to taking a formal course of study with the idea of actually learning how to write, when, back in college, I signed up for an English Department course in “Creative Writing” (4 credits). It was a mistake. For one thing, nowadays I don’t believe one can teach “creativity.” Mind you, I’m not suggesting that you either have creativity or you don’t—not at all. But I think that a writer must develop his or her own ability to think and write creatively. For another, my Professor was a former hack sports reporter who had spent most of his life writing newspaper stories about all of the gory details of professional and amateur boxing. Writing fiction was not a big part of his skillset. Or so I thought.
In any case, for one of my assignments I had painstakingly written a partially biographical story about a college kid traveling the 300 miles from campus back to his home via a combination of hitchhiking (it was both legal and safe, mostly, in those days) and commercial bus lines. And I’d begun the piece with a tedious, slightly fictionalized description of who this kid was and where he was traveling and why he was using such desultory means of transportation (and on and on). Apparently at that time, I felt it necessary to tell forth this largely prefatory information in order to set the stage for the reader; as if they would need all of this drivel to understand what was going on. I filled the whole first manuscript page with this stuff, until the first line of the first paragraph of the second page, which read something like, “The bus doors hissed open in Binghamton,” and the story continued apace from there.
When the professor returned the graded compositions to the class about a week or two later, he did so without fanfare, until he came to mine. Whereupon, with great theatrical flair that caught everyone in the room by surprise, he abruptly, almost violently, ripped the first page off the stapled manuscript and held it aloft, a menacing expression on his face. He then proceeded to crumble into a ball the offending sheet in his hand, finally tossing it in the general direction of the waste basket in the corner by the door. Then like a character from Shakespeare, he put his figure on that first simple line about the hissing bus doors in Binghamton and staring down at me said, “This is where your story begins,” pausing with emphasis on the “this.”
And I realized at that moment that very often, my biggest difficulty with writing is getting the story off the ground, launching it, if you will. I sometimes have a tendency to want to “set the scene” for the reader, to explain everything, like a character in a Mel Brooks film who stops, looks at the camera after a plot revelation and speaks directly to the audience, “You got that?” Consequently, I can tend to want to diddle with the details. I am not one who fully goes along with that overused adage, “Show don’t tell,” which I feel some “experts” cite in criticism when they can’t think of anything else to criticize. Sometimes you just have to tell stuff, in my view. But I have to concede that the first page of ramblings in that college piece was a deathly case of ‘telling’ as toxic as a Texas oil spill. And I have learned that I must drive myself to just jump into the story and get on with it like jumping into a pool—no wimpy dipping of my toes to gauge the temperature first. But the most ironic thing about this lesson was, that Writing Professor, whose creative instincts I had clearly misjudged, had also vastly improved my story by tearing away the very page of content that had been—by far—the hardest one for me to write.